The BBC’s editorial complaints unit has rejected a complaint about a controversial documentary on Rwanda that questioned official accounts of the 1994 genocide.
The group of scholars, scientists, researchers, journalists and historians who made the complaint now plan to appeal to the BBC Trust over the decision.
Rwanda’s Untold Story, broadcast on 1 October 2014, sparked controversy by suggesting President Paul Kagame may have had a hand in the shooting-down of his predecessor’s plane, which triggered the mass killings.
It also quoted US researchers who suggested that many of the more than 800,000 Rwandans who died in the 1994 genocide may have been ethnic Hutus, and not Tutsis as the government maintains.
Kagame accused the BBC of “genocide denial” in the documentary, which he said had chosen to “tarnish Rwandans, dehumanise them”. The corporation emphatically rejected the claims.
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Last November, a group of 48 people, including former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross Cornelio Sommaruga, Bishop Ken Barham and investigative journalist and author Professor Linda Melvern, wrote to BBC director general Tony Hall to express concern over the documentary.
Their letter claimed the BBC had been “recklessly irresponsible” in airing the film, said it contained serious inaccuracies, and claimed part of its content promoted genocide denial.
The criticisms were rejected by Jim Gray, deputy head of current affairs, so last month they took their case to the BBC’s editorial complaints unit.
Their complaint claimed the documentary was in breach of BBC editorial guidelines, including its commitment to truth and accuracy, impartiality, serving the public interest and distinguishing opinion from fact.
It was backed by a 15-page document claiming the programme promoted denial of the genocide of the Tutsi, changed the meaning of events, and tried to reinterpret the facts and change reality.
The complainants accused the film of being misleading and biased, saying it had promised “evidence that challenges the accepted story of the Rwandan genocide” but had instead used discredited material produced by defence lawyers in the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. They also criticised the BBC journalists for relying on unverified witness testimony in the programme.
Finally, they claimed there had been concerns among BBC staff about the film, and questioned whether, given its sensitivity, it should have been considered at a high level within the corporation.
The editorial complaints unit produced a detailed response to the allegations, but found the film had not breached BBC guidelines.
A BBC spokesperson confirmed: “The BBC’s editorial complaints unit has concluded that the documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story was not in breach of the BBC’s editorial standards.”
One of the complainants, Melvern, said in response: “The ECU determined no breaches in editorial guidelines took place and declared the programme justified for ‘good editorial reasons’, produced in a spirit of ‘journalistic inquiry’.
“None of our concerns was addressed. The ruling failed to provide answers to our questions. No evidence was forthcoming. The ECU wrote that judgments handed down at the ICTR had ‘little relevance’ when considering ‘other accounts’ of the genocide. The programme was simply presenting ‘dissenting views’, ‘alternative perspectives’, and ‘controversial theories’ about the genocide of the Tutsi claiming all the while that this would not mislead viewers.
“The BBC claims that the documentary did not damage the history of the genocide of the Tutsi – we maintain it did just that.”
Melvern said an appeal will be lodged with the BBC Trust next week.
A spokesperson for BBC News said: “Throughout the making of this programme, which we acknowledge raised extremely painful issues, our guiding principle was to respect the immense suffering of the Rwandan people and cover an immensely difficult subject in a measured way, not to downplay nor conceal events.”
Last month, the UK called on the Rwandan government to lift its ban on BBC radio broadcasts in the country’s most common language, which was imposed in the wake of the documentary.
A Foreign office spokesperson said the UK government “recognises the hurt caused in Rwanda by some parts of the documentary”, but it was “concerned” by the move to suspend the BBC’s FM broadcasts and hold an official investigation.
The inquiry, set up by the government-appointed Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency, urged its government to take criminal action against the BBC.
Its report said: “The documentary made a litany of claims and assertions that are problematic in a number of ways and which we consider to violate Rwandan law, the BBC’s own ethical guidelines and limitations to press freedom.
“We also find the documentary to be minimising and denying genocide, contravening domestic and international laws.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “We are extremely disappointed by the findings of this commission. While we do not yet know the full implications for the BBC in Rwanda, we stand by our right to produce the independent journalism which has made us the world’s most trusted news source … We strongly reject any suggestion that any part of this documentary constitutes genocide denial.”
Source: The Guardian